At the end of January, Team USA will attempt to defend its title at the prestigious culinary competition in Lyon, France.
During the lead-up to the 2007 Bocuse d’Or, Minneapolis-based chef Gavin Kaysen trained one day a week, using half the kitchen at his restaurant during Sunday brunch service. But the French team, which ultimately won the 2007 two-day competition in Lyon, had been training full-time in an exact replica of the competition kitchen for over a year. Kaysen and Team USA didn’t stand a chance.
Yet In 2017, backed by chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud and with the support of sponsors like Hestan, Barclays, and Cuisinart, Team USA brought home the gold medal for the first time since the Bocuse d’Or was founded in 1987. At the end of January, Team USA will attempt to defend its title at the most prestigious culinary competition in the world, and the stakes are higher than ever.
When legendary French chef Paul Bocuse first imagined the Bocuse d’Or, as a way to showcase the world's most promising culinary talent, French food was still considered the pinnacle of gastronomy: Michelin wasn't yet publishing guides for any city outside Europe; Julia Child was at the height of her fame; and European food culture reigned supreme. It’s no surprise, then, that European teams – especially the French – dominated the competition for decades.
In 2007, though, the Bocuse d'Or (which translates to “Bocuse of Gold” and refers to the gold statue of Bocuse that's given to the winning team) shifted. It introduced continental qualifying competitions, where countries competed for one of the twenty-four spots in the final competition, which is held every other year in Lyon, France. These qualifying rounds encouraged participation from nations outside Europe – this year’s competition will feature teams from African countries for the first time, with both Morocco and Tunisia competing in the finals.
Yet the French influence is still deeply ingrained. During the event, teams have five hours and thirty-five minutes to create two platter presentations – one centering a seafood dish, and one centering a meat, and each featuring three garnishes. For 2019, the themes selected by the board are vegetable chartreuse with shellfish and suckling veal rack with five prime chops.
This year's themes pay tribute to the iconic French chefs who died in 2018; Bocuse, to whom the veal rack is dedicated, and Joël Robuchon, to whom the shellfish is dedicated. At the end of the allotted time, judges taste the platters, evaluating the teams on flavor, presentation, and teamwork.
At this year’s competition, Team USA consists of Matthew Kirkley, Head Chef, and Mimi Chen, commis. Before leaving their positions to train full-time for the competition, Kirkley ran Coi in San Francisco which, under his leadership, earned a third star from the Michelin guide. Chen also worked at Coi.
The platters are elaborately planned; Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail, a Chicago-based design firm that works with high-end restaurants like Alinea to create unique service-ware, consults with Team USA to design the platters and other tools they may need. Kastner’s contributions in past years have included a platter with built-in battery-powered heating elements, to insure the food would reach the judges at its ideal temperature.
At the training facility, in a custom-built kitchen at CIA Copia in Napa, Chen and Kirkley are supported by coaches, assistants, and high-profile chefs such as Keller, Boulud, and Kaysen, all of whom sit on the board of the Ment’or Foundation, which was founded in 2007.
Competition cooking is quite different than restaurant cooking. “The biggest difference is that in a restaurant the guests are coming to you, while in a competition you are coming to the judges,” says Kirkley. “There’s a positive anticipation that you naturally receive at a restaurant; after all they have decided to dine with you. The judges do not have that same sense of anticipation, and that’s critical to remember.”
To prepare for the time constraints, Kirkley and Chen have each task written down and timed to the second. “The interesting aspect of developing the cooking program within the time constraint is it pushes the team to develop new culinary techniques,” said Head Coach Robert Sulatycky. “For the Americas Bocuse d’Or qualifying competition this past April in Mexico City, the team developed the process of preparing a cured and smoked ham in five hours. Normally this takes two to three days.”
This is partially accomplished with help from Kastner, who designs efficient kitchen tools for the chefs to use during the competition, which helps cut down on time.
“Cooking at the Bocuse d’Or can be compared to presenting a collection for a haute couture runway show,” says Sulatycky. “It is the highest level of culinary artistic expression.”
If you’re interested in attending the competition, purchase tickets to Sirha, the tradeshow during which the Bocuse d’Or is presented. For those unable to swing a last-minute trip to Lyon, the entire competition will be broadcast online – follow @BocuseDorOfficial on Facebook. Team USA will compete on the first day of the competition, January 29.